The Sentry at Ice Cave
by John W. Steele
A winter long and dreadful it was, but spring arrived and the dogwoods were in bloom. Throughout the frigid months, Lester had studied the old map that Abraham the antique dealer had given him long ago. Every contour elevation and detail on the worn and faded parchment lay etched in his memory like a photograph.
Abe claimed that, at the height of the Indian wars, early settlers hid their valuables in a place called Ice Cave. He told Lester the cavern lay hidden behind tree roots below the cliff of a high ravine.
Lester had known Abraham for a long time and had no reason to doubt him. Lester was not yet a year old when his father left home, and through the years Abraham had become like an elder brother to him.
* * *
The hammer of a cue ball cracked in the distance and the drone of a sports commentator hung in the air. Lester sat on a bar stool, staring into his beer mug. He thought about the treasure, and his mind wandered back to the days just before Abe died.
“It’s been too many years, and I’ll never make it up there now, Lester. I can’t breathe, and my legs won’t carry me. But you’re a tank. You’ve got what it takes to get it, if you want to. I don’t have anyone else I want to give it to, so it’s yours. Your Ma would like for me to do that.” Abe paused, and a sheepish grin spread on his face.
Lester’s brow furrowed in three wrinkles, and he looked Abe in the eye. “What makes you so sure there’s anything up there?”
The old man raised a Lucky and took a puff. “I know it’s there. My great-granddaddy Evelyn told me all about it when I was a boy.”
Abe reached into his pocket and fished out a worn Pillar dollar. He stared at the coin for a moment and then handed it to Lester.
“There’s two saddlebags full of those things in Ice Cave, plus a whole lot of other stuff: muskets, flatware, jewelry, I ain’t sure what all.”
“How come you never went for it your own self?”
The old man snagged a shred of tobacco from his lower lip with his tongue, pursed his lips, and spit the particle into the air. He coughed a phlegm-filled rattle and then gazed out the window.
“I never much cared for the woods. That’s a redneck’s turf. Sometimes a shred of knowledge can lead to a fortune, and I always had plenty of money. My game was women. Of course, even when I bought ’em, they were more trouble than they were worth.”
Lester remained silent, rubbing the coin gently in his thumb and forefinger.
“I probably ought to tell you what you should already know,” Abe said.
“You don’t get something for nothing. You know that don’t you?”
“I’m learning it.”
Abe crushed out the cigarette and placed a canula back in his nose. He fumbled with the switch on the concentrator, and the hiss of oxygen cut through the silence.
“A lot of blood was spilled in them hills. That kind of thing leaves a mark,” said Abe.
“What kind of mark?”
“I ain’t sure, probably not a good one.”
“Are you saying there’s a curse on it?”
“Were you afraid to go up there?”
Lester gripped the coin in the palm of his hand. “It might not be worth it.”
The old man fixed him with a cold eye. “How long have you been back from the Middle East now?”
“Do you think you’ll ever amount to anything?”
The young man lowered his head and said nothing.
“Here’s the way it is, son. You can work for wages until you die, and you’ll die broke. But if you truly want better, you’ve got to take it.”
* * *
On a cool morning in late April, Lester parked his truck at the end of a rutted dirt road. The day had broken clear and magnificent, and a turquoise sky spread like an ocean overhead.
He stood for a moment and gazed at the top of the mountain. A hawk rode the wind above, and the woods were quiet as a graveyard.
A thousand yards up the slope lay the boulder called Voorman’s Nose. From that point due west, the old man claimed you could see the stone marker at Sabbath Peak. According to him, seven chains beneath it sat the mouth of Ice Cave.
Sunlight shimmered through the budding canopy and splashed on the dwindling mounds of snow. Lester loved the woods. A feeling of tranquility surged through him, and a strange thought entered his head. What a glorious day to die. If I must die, I hope it’s on a day as beautiful as this. He chuckled at the idea and prepared for the climb.
He dragged a backpack from the bed of the pickup and slid his arms into the straps. Then he walked to the cab and pulled a faded desert patrol cap from beneath the seat. He placed it on his head and lowered the visor.
Lester crossed the road and climbed the high earth bank. At the shoulder, he set foot on a trail that snaked through a fat patch of spruce. A bluish dusk suffused the pines about, and his breath flowed white in the air.
The brutal winter had left fallen trees in its wake, and gobs of mudded turf caked in the cleats of his boots. He scaled the broken incline, stopping to rest every few hundred yards. Near the crest, he crashed onto a path formed of weathered rock debris.
At the summit sat the mass of stones that marked the Voorman. Lester made his way carefully through the talus until he reached the ancient monolith. The boulder stood defiant, a hulking behemoth the color of tarnished pewter and stippled with patches of pale-green lichen.
The man’s chest heaved, and a trickle of sweat drained from his brow. He removed his pack and leaned it on the slab. A flat lip extended from the base of the stone. He sat down on it to rest.
For a while he studied the contour of the Sabbath, but the terrain blended together like some kind of camouflaged rebus.
He undid a pocket strap and pulled out his field glasses. He held them to his eyes and adjusted the viewfinder. Like a jeweler, he scanned every inch of the buttress, searching for the tiny cairn that pointed to the cave.
A narrow crag fell from the ridge and snaked its way down the rock face. Lester's breath froze and he followed the thin black line along the slope. From out of nowhere, a tiny bluestone symbol emerged. The stones formed a crucifix just as Abraham had predicted.
A tingle of victory shot through the man’s nerves. It seemed too easy. Everything he’d ever wanted lay less than half a mile in the distance: the machines, the land, a chance to start again. The treasure seemed so close he could reach out and touch it. It has to be there. He strapped on his pack and hurried down the mountain.
According to the map, an early war trail lay at the base of the Voorman. Lester was prepared for this, but as he neared the fold, the plat bore no resemblance to the image drawn two hundred years ago. The broken line in the diagram had morphed into a hardpan dirt road.
A high-pressure barbed wire fence ran along the far shoulder. Red warning signs with the words “Danger - No Trespassing” hung on stout metal posts anchored deep in the ground. Beyond the fence, a rutted meadow lay where an early hardwood forest once stood.
Lester walked cautiously toward the road. A half-buried oil drum peered out from a bog of muck in the gully. Ponderous hoof prints surrounded the drum like the markings of some territorial predator.
Lester made his way through the marsh and stepped up on the barrel. He raised his field glasses and surveyed the area. A grand chalet stood on a knoll far in the distance. The A-frame had a green gabled roof, and an enormous deck protruded from the end wall. A wisp of grey smoke coiled from a cobblestone chimney, and the scent of fried bacon hung in the crisp morning air.
He turned and surveyed the other end of the trail. The pasture ended with a proper livestock gate. The corrugated steel barrier had been painted neon orange. He squinted in the lenses; the gate appeared to be ajar.
His eyes wandered to the highpoint at Sabbath. A vague silhouette of the cliff jutted out near the summit.
He surmised Ice Cave lay roughly a ten-minute journey beyond the end of the meadow. A short jaunt down the road, a steep climb up the slope, and the treasure would be his.
He’d set a bearing ten clicks west of the Voorman and walk the extra mile back to his truck. Nobody would ever know he’d been there. It’s now or never. The man stepped from the barrel. His boots sucked in the mud and he climbed onto the trail.
Lester strode double-time down the road. A claw of anxiety raked his guts, and his eyes darted from side to side. His hand gripped the combat knife strung on his belt, and he chanted a consolatory mantra: One more hour and it will all be a memory.
A feeling of confidence settled in, and for a moment he felt invincible. Then from out of nowhere, a blood-curdling bellow pieced the air. Lester froze in his tracks, and terror uncoiled like a viper in his chest.
From behind a mound of field debris, a grotesque configuration emerged. Through the furrows it plodded like a mindless leviathan. The creature strode beyond the gate and climbed onto the road where it stood defiant, like a Minotaur from Hades.
The hunter and the hunted eyed each other, their gaze like a testament to a challenge formed in a distant past.
The bull was in its prime; its neck as thick as a tree stump. Sunlight glistened on its lustrous black hide, and its horns stretched like broad iron tines from its skull.
The man’s throat contracted. A damp spot appeared in his pants and extended down his leg. He wanted to sprint for the safety of the mountain, but his body would not obey. He raised his hands and released the straps on his pack. It fell from his shoulders and thumped on the road.
The bull’s eyes flashed a scarlet beacon, and it shook its massive head. The giant stomped the ground and snorted, and then it charged.
A blast of adrenalin shocked the man from the shackles of paralysis. He turned and sped down the road. Hoofbeats thundered behind him, and the monster’s breath gusted on the back of his neck.
The man knew his only chance lay in the pasture. He sprinted towards the fence and leaped high in the air. He grabbed the wire and vaulted to safety, but his hand slipped, and the jagged barbs chewed deep into his flesh. Blood spurted in a measured cadence from the wound and splattered on the ground. The man clenched his wrist and fought to gather his wits.
The bull thundered on the hardpan and struggled to a halt. It paced on the road and roared. Quick as the wind, the giant spun in a circle and barreled towards the pasture.
With astonishing grace the beast hurled its body in the air. Its front hooves cleared the fence and boomed onto the ground, but its hindquarters snagged the wire and tore a stake from the post hole. The bull tumbled in the mud and staggered to its feet. Blood poured from its hocks, and one of its testicles dangled from its scrotum. Foam dripped from the corners of its mouth, and its eyes burned like cherry embers.
A towering oak stood in the center of the pasture. Lester cradled his hand to his chest and dashed towards the fortress. He’d never run so fast, and he felt as if he were floating above the ground.
The bull lowered its head and tore after him.
The man cleared the tree just as the bull sped past. Its horn clipped the trunk, and shards of bark erupted in its wake.
Like ancient gladiators they maneuvered around tree. The beast continued its attack, but each attempt to gore the man failed by inches.
Blood drained from the wound like running water. The man’s vision blurred and he went cold all over. He knew he would not survive without a tourniquet, and he knew as well there would be but one chance to fell the beast.
Lester loosed his Ka-bar and gripped it firmly in his good hand. He focused the remainder of his will and for a moment time stood still. A horn slashed the trunk, and a smoldering scarlet eye came within range. The man’s breath froze in his chest, and he thrust the dagger.
The blade sank deep in the creature’s skull. The eye capsule erupted with a pop, and yellow matter spurted from the socket. The bull shrieked, then reared on its hindquarters and dropped to its knees. It rolled to its side and lay gasping in the blood-soaked mud and manure.
The man gaped upon the quivering giant as though lost in a dream. The dagger fell from his hand and landed on a fieldstone with a clang. He reached behind and pulled a bandana from his back pocket. He stared at the rag, but its purpose escaped him. The meadow churned like a rolling ocean. The man took three steps forward and crashed to the ground.
Like some kind of mindless robot, he crawled on his belly towards the road. A carpet of blood sparkled in the grass behind him.
The world slowed to a halt, and a feeling of warmth and serenity flooded him to the marrow. He rolled on his back and lay calmly in the pasture.
The man turned his head and gazed at Sabbath. Ice Cave beckoned like a hovering castle shrouded in glory.
Lester reached forth a trembling hand. Coins shining, golden, and holy lay heavy in his fist. He squeezed the coins and whispered a prayer.
Deep in the hills the winds awakened and howled like the echo of an ancient war cry.
The azure sky paled to black, and only the scent of bacon remained.
Copyright © 2014 by John W. Steele